SE Houston garden provides Bhutanese refugees a greener future
SUSAN CARROLL, HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Published 05:30 a.m., Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Before conflict exiled him to a refugee camp in Nepal for nearly two decades, Jain Sing Tamang tended to crops in the southern foothills of his native Bhutan.
Now in southeast Houston, some 8,500 miles from his village, the 61-year-old again walks among stalks of corn and hearty strands of long beans, stooping to pick green and yellow squash. He finds a bit of comfort — of peace and promise – here in this community garden established on the city’s southeast side to help recent refugees.
“This is my first job here,” Tamang said through a translator. “I am having trouble finding work because I do not speak English. I went to many places, but no one is hiring.”
This garden, a grant-funded project of the Alliance for Multicultural Community Services, so far has given 27 newly arrived Bhutanese refugees an opportunity to learn about organic farming in the U.S. and, organizers say, helped put them on a path to self-sufficiency.
“We train them in new skills and to eat healthy food, and hopefully, they will be entrepreneurs in the future,” said Yani Keo, a co-founder of the alliance and a certified master organic gardener.
Keo, a Cambodian refugee, is no stranger to this type of project. She helped Cambodian farmers settle in Rosharon in the 1980s and is a well-recognized name in the city’s Asian community.
She is working to attract big-name donors, including Exxon Mobil Corp., to help supplement the grant funding through the federal government’s Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program, which has authorized $85,000 per year through 2013 – provided that the project delivers on its promises.
Sue Davis, chairwoman of the board of directors for the Alliance, said refugees have picked about 150 pounds of squash every other day since the harvest started in June and have fed themselves, their families and their neighbors.
The garden sits on land adjacent to a warehouse-style building for Amy Food Inc., a family-owned Asian food company based in Houston. In the fall, Keo hopes to plant cabbage and chives to sell to Amy Food, which was founded by Taiwanese immigrants Phyllis Hsu and her husband.
The company has been importing organic vegetables from California but sees many advantages to buying local and helping refugees in the process, Hsu said. Eventually, she said, she would consider hiring some of the refugees to work at her company.
A second site
Keo also is talking about expanding the project to a second site, 70 acres of land in Rosenberg, where she hopes some refugees might be able to build a small community and live in mobile homes on the land, rather than in the city in apartment complexes.
With little funding, her plan will rely heavily on donations and on the ability to attract businesses interested in ordering produce grown by the refugees, who would share in the profits.
Tamang, the Bhutanese refugee, said he is studying English in hopes of making himself more marketable in the U.S.
One of his sons has found work since the family arrived in Houston, but money is still very tight for the family of nine.
“It is not enough,” he said, “but we don’t have many options.”